By Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD

Fat has gotten a really bad reputation over the years. Back in the 90’s, people were scared of fats, and many food companies thought that they could make a food healthier by removing the fat. Remember all those fat-free snacks that filled supermarket shelves? In place of the fat would be extra added sugar, which is actually much worse for you. Luckily, those days are long gone, and we now know that certain types of fat are actually vital and beneficial to your health.

What does fat do?

Fat is your body’s storage and protection mechanism. A long time ago, our ancestors would go long periods of time without eating, and they had fat stored up to provide energy during these times without food. Fat was good in times of desperation because it contains the most calories of the macronutrients—9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram in carbohydrates and protein. Fat also acts as protection for the major organs, such as the kidneys, heart and liver. Lastly, certain vitamins (A,D, E and K) are fat-soluble, meaning that fat is necessary to absorb these nutrients. Yet, too much fat can clog arteries and cause serious health problems. Where is the happy medium? The answer lies in the type of fat you consume.

What are the different types of fat?

  • Saturated fats, aka the “bad” fats, are mostly found in animal sources like meat, eggs, cheese, butter, and milk. Saturated fat is also prevalent in many desserts, such as cupcakes, pastries, donuts and candy. Too much saturated fat can cause health problems, such as high cholesterol and heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 5-6% of calories come from saturated fat.
  • Unsaturated fats, aka the “good” fats, are made up of several types of fats, including omega 3’s and omega 6’s. The omegas are essential fatty acids, meaning that the body does not make them and needs them for survival. Therefore, it’s essential that we eat these types of fat. “Good” fats are usually found in plant sources, such as avocados, nuts, soy beans, flax seeds, oils, and fatty fish.

The only difference between saturated fat and unsaturated fat is the structure of the molecule. One type of fat has more chemical bonds than the other.

Fat and the athlete

So, if fats are high in calories, why feed them to a child athlete that needs to be quick and lean? Well, omega-3 and omega 6 fats have been linked to many beneficial health responses. Many studies have found that a diet rich in “good” fats can enhance brain function, may lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and triglycerides, and can actually reduce the risk of developing serious diseases like heart disease and cancer. While these risks are not often at the top of a child’s mind, it’s important to establish healthy eating habits with young athletes. With proper nutrition knowledge, they can grow up to be their healthiest selves and play to the best of their ability.

But, during sports seasons, when should children be eating these “good” fats? Fats take a long time to digest and are, therefore, an inefficient energy source. It’s important to eat fats 3-4 hours before a practice or game and pair them with other nutrients, like carbs and protein. For example, a turkey (protein) sandwich on whole wheat bread (carbs) with avocado (“good” fats) or a side of nuts (“good” fats) is a great option for your child’s lunchbox if they have a practice or game later in the day. Your child will have 3-4 hours to digest and will reap the many benefits from these healthy fats.

The bottom line. There is such a thing as a “good” fat, and it’s a vital part of every diet. Yet, like all other nutrients, they should be eaten in moderation. Generally, most people don’t eat enough essential fats, so there’s no need to shy away from fish, nuts, avocados and oils.

To add more “good” fat to your diet, try making these easy Cinnamon Roasted Almonds.

Recipe and photo courtesy of Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, Nutrition à la Natalie

Makes 4 snack servings

Ingredients:

1 cup raw whole almonds
½ tablespoon agave
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
cooking spray or drizzle of Canola oil

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Place almonds in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle agave or honey over the almonds.  Use a spatula to stir and coat the almonds with agave.

3) Mix in cinnamon and salt and stir with a spatula.  Try to make sure the almonds are evenly coated.

4 Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray, or drizzle with canola oil (spread oil over pan with paper towel).  Spread almonds evenly on the pan.

5) Bake for 10 minutes.

6) While still warm, taste the almonds and add a sprinkle of cinnamon if desired.  Let cool, and enjoy!

Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian, specializing in sports nutrition and adolescent nutrition education. She’s excited to spread the message of healthy eating and “food as fuel” at A-Game Sports. To find out more about our Nutritionist or to schedule an appointment for you or your child, visit our nutrition counseling page.